On why being kind to others is good for your mental health and well-being

How do we explain why several men risked their lives to save the lives of 100 dogs trapped in burning inferno that was once Manchester Dogs Home and the sympathetic response  of thousands of other people contributing an astonishing one million pounds. We regularly make donations to a variety of charities, give blood to help the sick, and even risk our lives to save others. Why do we engage in altruistic acts by going out of our way to help others when it involves a cost to ourselves?

One argument from an evolutionary perspective is that altruistic helping is strongly associated with our ability to understand and empathise with another person’s point of view. The greater a person’s  ability to empathise,  the greater their potential to be altruistic. The more  we are able to identify with those we are empathising with the more likely we are to be sympathetic. Emphasizing similarities with others increases people’s ability to identify with them and even join them in caring about their fate. If we apply this reasoning to the case in point  then it seems safe to assume that heroic altruism both inspires and provokes sympathetic and even moral concerns about the positive welfare of other living beings.

Beyond altruistic concern, evolutionary theories suggest that helping behaviour or being kind to others makes it more likely that others will reciprocate by helping us in our time of need. One the face of it this is a win-win situation – everyone  benefits from giving as well as receiving care and consideration.  Indeed well-being research bears this out by claiming a bi-directional influence between kindness and life satisfaction: people who are inclined to be kind and caring are happier than those who are not, and the opposite applies, happy people are kinder than people who are depressed.

All of this makes it possible to envisage a truly cooperative society where kindliness is the norm and everyone benefits from giving as well as receiving care and consideration. There are some challenges however.

Empathetic concern for others’ well-being can lead us to care about how we ought to behave morally. The downside of this is that altruistic behaviour or being kind to others is often more paternalistic than sympathetic. This means that people with strong moral values may not always act in the best interest of others of those who are meant to benefit by their concern. Some moral beliefs may even be divisive in promoting helping behaviour  only towards those who share their beliefs and indifference or aggression towards those who do not. More obviously, where people feel a strong moral obligation to care for sick or aging relatives or friends, it is often to the detriment of their own health and well-being.  Empathy and altruistic helping   in this context can be especially emotionally draining. Nevertheless, if our goal is a friendly cooperative society, then we should support those who care and celebrate those who try to be altruistic.


Dr Penelope Johnson Chartered Psychologist

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